The Dry Heart


Text: Alan Porter
SATB a capella
1. The Fall
2. Funeral Song
3. The Dry Heart
4. The Falling World
5. Wood Path

My choral cycle The Dry Heart was written in 1967 for John Joubert and his Motet Choir of the University of Birmingham, who gave the first performance at Birmingham University in 1968. The BBC Northern Singers, under Stephen Wilkinson, gave the first BBC Radio 3 broadcast on 24 February 1969 and were closely associated with the work for many years.

Alan Porter (1899-1942) was a brilliant figure on the Anglo-American literary scene in the 1920s and 30s, although he is now neglected apart from an occasional request on BBC Radio 4’s Poetry Please. However, Porter was much admired by Edith Sitwell; played a part in the revival of John Clare when, still at Queen’s College, Oxford, he and Edmund Blunden published a selection of poems from manuscript in 1920; and he was an editor and contributor to Oxford Poetry in 1920, 21 and 22. After going down he became Literary Editor of the Spectator and when his volume of poems The Signature of Pain was published in 1930, The Times said: ‘We doubt whether any more notable volume of poetry has been published since the War’. Porter’s marriage to the pioneering film critic Iris Barry did not last and he moved to New York in 1929 to lecture on individual psychology at The New School for Social Research, as an associate of Alfred Adler. From 1932 he was on the faculty at Vassar College where he mounted a production of his completion of Ben Jonson’s The Sad Shepherd. But he became obsessed with intellectually fashionable Marxist politics, on which he gave lectures, and he would certainly have been investigated by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s notorious committee had he lived.

The five poems of The Dry Heart are the only ones Porter published after The Signature of Pain – no others are known - and coincide with the drying up of his poetic gifts and a general descent into a luxuriant pessimism, which could also be interpreted as a response to the kind of disasters that regularly afflict mankind.
1. ‘The Fall’ uses eight-part chords as a battery while the poet wonders how to get through life.
2. ‘Funeral Song’: fear is expressed in varied metres, the ‘night not to be slept through’ is on a single chord, ‘nothing’ is mostly a unison.
3. ‘The Dry Heart’ is the extended centrepiece. A dirge starts in the altos; a soprano solo makes the lament personal – surely linking to Porter’s own inability to create; and then in a final rapid section, the dirge appears in the basses as the sun is accused of being dead; finally the soprano’s lament appears in frozen two-part counterpoint above the dirge.
4. ‘The Falling World’ evokes the numbness following tragedy, but there is some respite since the poet sleeps.
5. ‘Wood Path’. The proliferation of leaves falling and rotting on the path (overlapping contrapuntal imitations to a violent climax) seem to symbolise the fact that life was lived in spite of everything and the music also relaxes - but on a question mark. PD


Battered from the crystal pinnacles
In a green valley with a hanging head
In a city street smiling with a pitiful smile
Men walk and mope
Babel has fallen and the pride of Babel
And the thought harries every haunted mind
These few and bitter years of life – to live them –
To escape catastrophe – to look to the ground,
To keep firm footing – to elbow no man’s side.

The fair feature, the honourable exploit,
The look of love and the light word of wit,
Crossed and confounded, to elements returning,
Sunk in the swollen chaos from which they came.

It is defeat: it is going down to death.
The incorruptible man gapes and the dust
Becomes, that was hardly more than dust, dust.

The night is a night not to be slept through: no,
It is a night without the shadow of any sun,
Without the promise of any sunrise; nothing
But loss, loss, losing; it is all nothing.

When the sun passed, who poured around
Comfort over the barren ground,
At whose divine and peaceable gaze
Earth flowered in beauty and shone with praise,
When death had stolen the brave sun
The land was bitterly alone.

And I can swear – for it is I
Whose blooms unseasonably die,
Whose garth is perishing with frost,
Whose ancient loving sun is lost –
I swear the sun is blood-bereft:
And weeps for the dear land he left.

I saw the phantom of the sun,
The white, the cold, the miserable,
The empty phantom of the sun.
This phantom, evil and malign,
The husk and absence of the sun,
The accurst and inconstant moon,
Told me a glozing and a lie.

This phantom told me that the sun
Was never wedded to my soil
But spread an equal and bright love
On other lands; and other lands
Flower in the sun and laugh with flowers.

I know this fable is a lie.
The round and miserable disk,
The empty moon is the sun’s ghost;
The sun is dead.
I see it like a heart grown dry:
The sun is dead.
If it is cold in this grey land
And if the moon above is cold,
If all the Arctic of the sky
Looks down on the Antarctic earth,
I know the sun himself is dead
And nothing of the ancient warmth
Stirs in the dying universe.

Here is the world falling on our heads,
Mountains diminishing to cinder heaps.
The prophets have all taken to their beds
And even as the poet sings he sleeps.

He looked: year upon year of gone growth
Covered the stone bone of the old earth.
He bent and lifted a leaf: no leaf,
Only the dry channels of life left.
The deep smell of decay rose round.

But here, under an oak’s rough rind,
In a dark wood, in a dead world, life lived.

© 2008-24 Estate of Peter Dickinson